Seattle Seahawks

Up next for worn-out Seahawks run defense? A ‘fresh’ NFL rushing champion

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott breaks off a big gain against the Seahawks in Seattle during an an exhibition game before the 2016 season. Elliott rushed for 48 yards on seven carries in the game.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott breaks off a big gain against the Seahawks in Seattle during an an exhibition game before the 2016 season. Elliott rushed for 48 yards on seven carries in the game. jbessex@gateline.com

Reigning NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott is back.

The Dallas Cowboys’ star running back spent much of his delayed six-week suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy on a half-vacation, half-work mission in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, preparing for his late season return.

He is back to buoy the Cowboys’ fleeting NFC playoff chances. And he could just finish off the Seahawks’ playoff hopes as well.

Each team is 8-6. A loss takes the loser out of the running for a wild-card spot.

The Seahawks expect Elliott to be one fired-up, raring-to-go stallion come Christmas Eve for the game at Dallas.

“That is our horse,” Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant told reporters late Sunday night.

The second-year star out of Ohio State returned to the Dallas practice facility Monday after completing his league-mandated punishment for an alleged domestic-violence incident involving his former girlfriend back in 2016.

Elliott participated in his first team activity — a noon run — Tuesday.

“He’s going to be all fired up, and he should be,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They’re going to feed him.

“He’s fresh – this is called fresh legs.”

The suddenly-struggling Seattle rushing defense certainly has a big challenge ahead.

The good news, Carroll relayed Monday, is that All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner did not do further damage to his hamstring after playing nearly three quarters of Seattle’s 42-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.

The bad news is there is no guarantee Wagner will be close to fully healthy.

It has been a difficult stretch for the Seahawks since Wagner injured his hamstring early in the second half of Seattle’s 30-24 loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 10.

After Wagner left the game, Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette tallied 72 of his game-high 101 yards.

Last week, Rams’ running back Todd Gurley torched Seattle for 152 rushing yards on 21 carries, with 144 coming in the first half. He scored four touchdowns.

The question: Can Seattle avoid allowing a running back to top the 100-yard mark for the third straight game for the first time since 2006?

That happened in the Mike Holmgren era: The Seahawks saw four running backs — Denver’s Tatum Bell (133 yards), Arizona’s Edgerrin James (115), San Francisco’s Frank Gore (144) and San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson (123) – eclipse that mark at the end of the season.

If Elliott was able to accomplish that against a Carroll-built defense, that would be doing something, especially since Seattle has perennially ranked in the top 10 in rushing defense over the past half-decade.

But Elliott arguably is the league’s top tailback, a unique blend of strength and speed the Cowboys have been missing the past six weeks. In 2016, he rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns.

This season, playing in eight games, Elliott has gained 783 yards with seven touchdowns.

“He has great vision. He’s a big guy who is fast, and can hit (the hole) and cut it back,” Seahawks defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson said. “We have to be in our gaps and play sound defense.”

In 21 of his 23 career regular-season games, Elliott has rushed for at least 80 yards. In 11 of those contests, he has gone over 100.

But Seattle has seen him before. Elliott played in his first NFL game against the Seahawks in the 2016 preseason, rushing for 48 yards on seven carries — and barreling over Kam Chancellor on a 13-yard carry.

“(It’s) another great running back, and we have to make those plays we didn’t make this week,” Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “It was a lot of simple stuff – wrapping up, tackling and being in the right position.”

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